Take Note: PSU Rock Ethics Institute Professors On Barriers To Police Reform

Jul 24, 2020

Penn State Rock Ethics Institute's Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones.

On May 25th, a police officer killed George Floyd while arresting him by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Videos of Floyd’s killing have led to weeks of protests across the country and calls for police reform.

Penn State professors Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones recently wrote an OpEd that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer about barriers to police reform and State College’s own police killing of a Black man with schizophrenia, Osaze Osagie. 

Eleanor Brown is a professor of law and international affairs and a senior scientist in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. Ben Jones is the assistant director.


Emily Reddy: 

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy. On May 25, a police officer killed George Floyd while arresting him by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Videos of Floyd's killing have led to weeks of protests across the country and calls for police reform. Penn State professors Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones recently wrote an OpEd that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer about barriers to police reform and State College's own police killing of a Black man with schizophrenia, Osaze Osagie. Eleanor Brown is a professor of law and international affairs and a senior scientist in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. Ben Jones is the assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute. Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones, thanks for talking with us.

 Eleanor Brown:  Thank you for having us. Thank you.  

Ben Jones:  Yes, thank you.

 Emily Reddy:  So can you remind listeners, or tell some of them for the first time, what happened to Osaze Osagie on March 20, 2019 in State College?

 Eleanor Brown:  At the time of Mr. Osagie's killing, and I should say I'm going to refer to him as Mr. Osagie because in my country, my native Jamaica, as a sign of respect you refer to people who are deceased by their last names. So at the time of Mr. Osagie's killing, I got a call from a longtime friend. To my shock and dismay and distress, um, I nearly dropped the phone. I remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday. She was calling to tell me that her first cousin, Mr. Osagie, had been killed by the State College police in the process of their administering a mental health warrant on him. But what compounded in my mind though, you know the disbelief, was that it happened... the Rock Ethics Institute had been involved we bringing Mr. Bryan Stevenson, the extraordinary civil rights and death penalty lawyer to speak. And thousands of people have signed up and come. It was an extraordinary event. I had had the privilege of introducing Mr. Bryan Stevenson and the very time that we were hosting Mr. Bryan Stevenson, that was the day that Mr. Osagie was killed. 

Ben Jones:  I mean, what was particularly tragic about the case is that his father had received texts suggesting that he may be suicidal. And so trying to do the right thing called out to the police for help, and that's when the mental health warrant was issued and the police went over to his house. And there was no video of the incident. The State College Police Department was in the process of adopting body cameras but they had not been implemented yet. And so the only account that we have is from the officers at the scene and what the officer said is that Mr. Osagie answered the door, spoke with them briefly and he had a knife and he charged them and that the only way to stop the threat was to shoot him lethally. And a lot of people in the community have found that unsatisfying and are deeply troubled by what happened, obviously. What particularly bothered me about the incident is that after Ferguson occurred, you had a number of leading organizations really pushing for changes that police can make to their tactics and their practices to make sure that they aren't using lethal force against individuals with mental illness or who have weapons less lethal than a firearm like a like a knife and throughout the country, there's a lot of resistance to that. And then here in our own community we see a killing occur under those very circumstances.

 Emily Reddy: Osaze Osagie's father actually called the police for help. So there was at least some level of trust here between the Black community and police. You know, what is that relationship like now?

 Eleanor Brown:  I would say the following. And clearly I can only... you know, one has to... I'm not in any way speaking on behalf of the Black community here. When Mr. Osagie's father called the police, I would like to say that in our constitutional democracy with basic human rights norms which govern the utilization of force by the state -- and that is what policing is -- policing is fundamentally about utilization of force by the state. We believe that these institutions are governed not only by a set of norms, but by a set of rules and laws, which lead to fair actions and behavior. And we work on the assumption that, as we should as citizens, that we can rely on the police for protection. Sadly, this is not a realistic assumption for too many police departments. And as such, Black people and Black parents have to think very, very carefully about how they call the police, about how the teach their children to interact with the police. And, you know, I think that this situation could only augment the sense of disquiet, that any Black person, and I would say not just any Black person, any family member who has a child or relative who is mentally ill, would feel. I mean, you have to feel a profound sense of disquiet. The facts are staring us in the face and they cannot be denied. 

Ben Jones:  And I would just add to that, Mr. Osagie he fell within two vulnerable communities when you look at who nationally are being killed by the police. And it's disproportionately Black people in this country and also individuals with mental illness. 

Emily Reddy:  One of the repeated demands of the 3/20 Coalition, which is named after the month and day that Osagie was killed, is that the police department release the name of the officer who killed Osagie. And I've heard Black community members say, you know, "Why should I trust the police when, you know, I could call for help and it could be that officer who would respond to that call?"

 Ben Jones:  This is a complaint across the country and for good reason. I think for too long there's been a vacuum of accountability for the police. I mean, here in Pennsylvania, it was common where officers would get hired in departments and their records from where they worked previously would not be disclosed at all to the department hiring them. And that has recently changed somewhat. The legislature just passed a law where if departments in the state are hiring someone, that those records will be turned over, they'll be available in a database. But it's still a database that only other law enforcement agencies have access to. And I think when you look at some of the problems with policing in the United States, too often there are incidents where the official police report comes out. And then later video comes out, which is completely different than what the police account was. And for good reason, there's not trust for the police in many communities, especially communities of color. And I think one way to address that is much more transparency. And being able for the community to be able to see what police are doing, have access to records. And you do see some steps being taken in that direction. New York state, after the killing of George Floyd, did pass legislation that would make police records public. So there there are steps in this direction, but there's still a long way to go, especially here in Pennsylvania. 

Eleanor Brown:  I want to make two points in response to the question you have raised. I am not a historian, but one of the areas that I study is property law. And one of the things that I think has not been discussed sufficiently in the current conversation is how we came to have a situation in which policing is disproportionately burdensome on black people. And there is a specific reason for that. And I think in the national discourse, it needs to be discussed. What property law scholars recognize about slavery is that if you have a system of property in bodies, in Black bodies. Property which is movable, so this is not -- just to distinguish -- this is not your house, which cannot move. This is a body which is mobile. It is valuable property. I'm using the word "it" because I'm utilizing the terminology that would have been utilized to refer to Black bodies as property. Now, if you have a system of movable property that underlies the entire economy of a large section of the country. You have to organize the utilization of force by the state, one of which is policing. To make sure you know where those Black bodies are, you need a mechanism of saying "This is my property. This property is not to move. It belongs to me. And if it moves, I will call on the state to bring that property back." The history of policing in the United States is inextricably tied with the history of slavery and the property in Black bodies as slaves. If you understand that history, it becomes very important that you understand the formidable power of the police and the way they've been utilized historically. And you put in place safeguards as you transition from a slave society to a society that is based on modern constitutional democratic norms. You put in place safeguards, so that power that has historically been utilized for illegitimate reasons -- that is to enforce slavery -- is no longer utilized in that way. And one of those safeguards is transparency.  

I also want to say that I believe -- and I'm speaking here only on behalf of myself, Eleanor Brown, and on behalf of no one else. I wrote a letter to the administration, the university administration about this, which thankfully has been signed by hundreds of people. The university has arrangements with the State College Police Department, in which members of the State College Police Department come onto the university campus to do certain things. And I think until we know who the identities are of the police officers who were involved, it is not reasonable for members of the State College Police Department to be on the university campus. Because the university cannot reasonably say to the members of its community that we know who's on the campus and we can assure you that those people who have been on the campus have not been involved in human rights abuses. They can't give us that assurance without knowing the identities of the persons who are involved. So this for me is really, really important.

 Emily Reddy:  Penn State professors Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones recently wrote an OpEd that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer about barriers to police reform and State College's own police killing of a black man with schizophrenia, Osaze Osagie. They're both a part of the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. 

 Another of the barriers to reform you list in the OpEd is that when a shooting happens, there's a rush to justify the tactics. In State College, the DA and the police department both found officers' actions were consistent with policies and procedures. But you ask, were the right policies in place? Are there proposed policies or perhaps policies being used somewhere else that would better protect the public?

 Ben Jones:  So where I would first point are recommendations put forward by the Police Executive Research Forum. And what they did after Ferguson was they went over and they studied law enforcement im other countries, like the UK. And what's interesting in the UK is that most officers do not carry a gun. But they still encounter individuals with knives, who may be suffering from mental illness. And I think, really, the mindset has to change. Because for so long in this country, if police encountered someone with a knife who was coming at them, you just stand your ground and you shoot. And that's not how police in the UK and elsewhere handle that situation. You get out of the way. You tactically reposition. You use distance and cover. There are solutions out there to reduce the number of killings that happen each year. But unfortunately, there's been real resistance to implementing them. When these recommendations first came out in 2016. They were slammed by a number of police organizations. Now one positive thing, I will note, is some of the local police departments are bringing in the Police Executive Research Forum to do some training. So hopefully that can be a first step to changing these tactics and implementing them here locally.

 Emily Reddy:  I was gonna bring up that idea of, you know, wouldn't that leave police more vulnerable. I mean, aren't there a lot more guns in the United States that, you know, someone might have, who they're going to try and help or stop.

 Ben Jones:  There are a lot more guns in the United States. But that doesn't make someone with a knife more dangerous in the United States. Someone with a knife in the United States is just as dangerous as someone with a knife in the UK.

 Emily Reddy:  So if the call is, "Oh, we've got someone with a knife and a mental health issue," then you'd send someone without a gun.

 Ben Jones:  Or you just if you have a gun, you don't use your gun, in that sort of situation. You know, there's another debate on you know, do all police officers in the United States need to carry guns? And I think that's, that's a debate worth having. But even if an officer has a gun it doesn't mean they have to use it in that particular situation.

 Emily Reddy:  So different training for that instance? 

Ben Jones:  Yeah. Yeah. 

Eleanor Brown:  You see, what I would add -- and I'm speaking here about particularly Mr. Osagie's situation -- is as law professors, we spend a lot of time teaching people about notice. What are you on notice about? If you are administering a mental health warrant, it means you are on notice that the person with whom you are going to be interacting has mental health challenges. And what that means is that you have to deal with the situation differently. And so for me, what makes this even more egregious is they know they're dealing with someone with mental health challenges. He has a steak knife. They're on notice. And if the situation is getting out of control, surely you'll figure out that you need to retreat and call a mental health specialist. You know, the credibility is not there if you're trying to tell people that here's a man who is mentally ill. You're on notice that he's mentally ill. He ends up dying because he is shot in his back. 

Emily Reddy:  A couple of shots in the front and a couple of shots in the back, I think the police report said.

 Eleanor Brown:  Yes, that is accurate. That is accurate. But my point is he was shot in his back. Right! Right! And, and the notion that you could not figure out a way to restrain this man without shooting him, and worse shooting him in his back... to my mind, in terms of credibility, the credibility is just not there. And it means that his life was not valued in the way that it should have been. And whenever you see situations like that, where life is not valid in the way that it should have been, you have to begin to raise questions about race and you need to begin to raise questions about mental illness. To not do so is to fill in your obligations as a citizen to ask questions that we should ask as citizens.

 Emily Reddy:  And, Ben, you've been working with the Patton Township Police Department, Patton Township where you live, on some reform measures. The ones you've recommended there include a more stringent deadly force policy, a ban on no knock warrants and a ban on procuring military equipment. Can you tell me a little more about those policies?

 Ben Jones:  So all of those recommendations come from leading civil rights organizations here in the United States, as well as the Legislative Black Caucus here in Pennsylvania. They're not going to solve all the issues with policing but they are straightforward, best practices. The one thing I would highlight is on the deadly force policy, the deadly force policy that is in place, I know at least for the Patton Township, and also the State College Borough Police Department is the text of the Pennsylvania law. And that law was passed in the 1970s, before a number of Supreme Court decisions narrowed the justification for police deadly force. So a number of legal experts, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, have come to the conclusion that the current Pennsylvania law is probably unconstitutional. And...

 Emily Reddy:  That's kind of like the conditions that need to exist in order for a police officer to use deadly force? Is that right? Ben Jones:  Exactly right. So if you go to the law, it will say, okay, either this condition can be met and you can use deadly force. Or that condition can be met and you can use deadly force. The problem with the law that's currently in place in Pennsylvania is that the way that it reads is if someone commits a robbery and is running away, the way the law reads is that deadly force could be justified even if the person fleeing doesn't present a present danger. But local departments can put in place policies that go beyond what those minimum federal and state standards are. So that's what I'd like to see some of these local departments do. 

Emily Reddy:  Have we seen those kinds of things enforced other places and have they worked? 

Ben Jones:  Yeah, you do see a number of departments around the country that have put in place more stringent deadly force policies. And, you know, the data is a little messy. But one thing that you you do see over the recent years, is that shootings in large cities have... killings by police in large cities have gone down some. And so one potential explanation for that, is that after Ferguson there was more police reform in these large cities, but now in suburban areas, rural areas, you're seeing more shootings, more killings by police. So this is something I think all across the country, we need to be tackling, not just large cities. 

Emily Reddy:  What about calls to defund the police? For example, in this instance, people who have called for defunding might say that a mental health response team should have come instead of police for Osagie. You talked about this a little bit. But it doesn't sound like you're saying that you're recommending defunding the police. 

Ben Jones:  One thing I will say is that a complication in Pennsylvania is that when a mental health warrant is issued state law is that a police officer has to be there. That being said, I think the defund movement makes a number of excellent points. And I think for too long the response to dealing with crime has been more enforcement, more funding for law enforcement without addressing the social determinants of crime: homelessness, lack of services for mental illness, poverty. And these are the sort of things that we have to get serious about addressing. 

Emily Reddy:  Eleanor, do you have reactions to that? 

Eleanor Brown:  So I wanted to say that when I think of the phrase "defund the police," what is really being called for is a reallocation of resources. Such that the professionals who provide those services and who would often be able to intervene to deescalate situations, given their training -- I'm thinking here particularly of social workers -- that they have resources directed to them, resources that we have too often in the past automatically just sent down to the police. I think it is also a discussion of the way in which financial incentives have meant the likelihood that there will be human rights abuses. So for example, let me tell you what I mean. Very few policemen, or funds which have to do with policemen, suffer any financial loss in the event that there is subsequently a lawsuit and they ae found to have acted in ways that are not consistent with what they were supposed to do and damages are awarded. So, Philando Castile, Philando Castile's mother got a judgement of $3 million US dollars. That was paid by an insurance. So there is no disincentive, no financial disincentive. I'm sure if you were to tie the judgements to  things that matter to police, such as their pension funds, you would begin to see more responsiveness. 

Ben Jones:  One quick thing I'll add is there was recent data that came out and it was looking at funding of police departments over recent decades. And what you find is it just kept going up and up and up. And I think one of the immediate things that you're seeing from the defund movement is questioning that assumption, that these budgets just keep going up and up and up. And that that's the way that we deal with public safety and keeping communities secure. 

Emily Reddy:  And you're both part of the Rock Ethics Institute. How exactly do you see ethics factoring in here? 

Ben Jones:  Policing is very complicated from an ethical perspective, because police themselves are in, often less than ideal circumstances. They're operating in a society where, you know, a lot of these issues are not being addressed. And so that puts them in a difficult situation. That doesn't mean they're off the hook, by any means. They have to figure out what's the best way to engage in policing given these less than ideal circumstances. But the ethical responsibility doesn't just stop with the police. Because in a democratic society, it's us that ultimate have authority over the police and our local officials. And so what the recent protests have been really bringing to the fore is, you know, what, what are our priorities as a society? And what sort of commitments are we going to make to make sure that people are safe and secure, especially Black lives? 

Eleanor Brown:  Part of the reason that I told the history is, I think, when you grapple with the history or recognize it becomes even more important to be highly cognizant as an institution, as policing institutions, of what police were used to do historically and what it is appropriate for them to do in modern constitutional democracies. So, for example, German police have to take a course on how police operated during the Nazi regime and the role that they played in rounding up Jewish people to sadly and deeply distressingly have them sent to their deaths in concentration camps. And the reason the Germans do this is because I think they understand that for a modern society to really grapple with its ethical obligations when a certain group of people are authorized by the state to use force, they need to understand the historical abuses that have occurred with that power. And that's why I really think that part of the modern policing curriculum needs to be how policing evolved under conditions of slavery. People need to understand that. And I think the Germans, you know, clearly it's completely different circumstances and one cannot compare them. But I do believe the Germans provide a model for what ethical obligations lead us to do and how we change our behaviors if we understand ethical obligations. I also want to say this. I think that part of what we're witnessing now, with the multiracial nature of the persons coming out onto the streets, is that a large proportion of Americans, a cross section of racial groups -- and particularly, I would note, it's striking how many white Americans are at these protests -- is they're saying, "We are citizens. You are agents of the state. You act in our name. And you will no longer be able to kill people like George Floyd in our name." They're saying do not do this in my name. 

Emily Reddy:  Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones, thanks for talking with us. 

Eleanor Brown:  Thank you very much for having us. Thank you very much for having us. 

Ben Jones:  Thank you.  

Emily Reddy:  Penn State professors Eleanor Brown and Ben Jones recently wrote an OpEd that ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Inquirer about barriers to police reform and State College's own police killing of a black man with schizophrenia, Osaze Osagie. They're both a part of the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. For WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy.